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5 September 2016 Edition

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Israel shoots, Palestinian kids score

Tel Aviv foul play fails to stop ‘Gaza Kids to Ireland’

• Kinvara (Photo: Sandrine Josso); life's a beach on Dublin’s Sandymount Strand; lining up behind the flag in Limerick and all fun and handshakes in Nenagh

Israel stopped five of the seven adults due to travel, including a journalist and the only woman, a specialist in children’s mental health

THE ‘Gaza Kids to Ireland’ soccer team returned home in triumph in August after overcoming an Israeli opposition that had tried to thwart the dream of young teens getting a sporting summer break from the besieged Palestinian territory.

Fourteen children aged 10 to 14 and two adults made it to Ireland from the Al Helal football academy in northern Gaza. Al Helal’s clubhouse and facilities were damaged by Israeli bombing in 2012 and again in 2014. 

The team flew home on Monday 8 August after 10 days in Ireland, winning many friends (including President Michael D. Higgins) and football matches around the country. And they made the RTÉ TV News as well as scoring notable results in a lot of other newsrooms.

But the ‘Gaza Kids to Ireland’ visit almost didn’t come off because Israel delayed issuing travel permits – and didn’t issue them for six of the intended travelling party, including one unfortunate child, hosts Gaza Action Ireland (formerly the Irish Ship to Gaza campaign) reported.

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• Al Helal boys team with President Michael D Higgins at Galway United's Eamonn Deacy Park

Israel had refused travel permits to children and coaches and delayed travel arrangements, forcing a postponement of already-arranged dates.

“Having just two adults with 14 children who had never before left Gaza, and who spoke very little English, made things very tough,” organisers said. 

“If Israeli authorities intended to cause maximum disruption to the project by this decision, they very nearly succeeded.”

The result at the end of the day, however, was a real success, full of fun and football, Gaza Action Ireland said.

Initially, a group of 22 was due to arrive in Ireland for a 12-day visit on 13 July, flying from Amman, Jordan, via Istanbul, but their permits to leave the besieged Gaza Strip were held up by Israel, necessitating the postponement of the programme. 

When the permits were finally granted in late July, everything had to be rescheduled for a shorter visit (29 July to 8 August).

Worse than the delays was the cruel refusal by Israeli authorities to issue permits to the entire group. 

One child from the group of 15 players, 13-year-old Karam Zidan, who was wounded in the 2009 attack on Gaza, was prevented from travelling to Ireland. Also banned were five of the seven adults due to travel: two coaches, a journalist, an administrator and the only woman, a specialist in children’s mental health.

“It seems likely the apartheid state didn’t want people in Ireland to hear about his injuries,” Gaza Action Ireland said of Karam.

Left behind, however, he was an even more vivid reminder of what was done to him, and what is done to thousands of other Palestinian children by Israel. 

“We are all Karam,” was a constant refrain in Ireland. 

Disappointed but undefeated, the backroom team pressed ahead.

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• In Dublin's Mansion House

The kids from Al Helal football academy played games against Ballybrack FC, Kinvara United, Nenagh AFC, Nenagh Celtic and Pike Rovers (and beat them all!). 

They were also guests of Galway United for their league win over Dundalk. That night, the boys were the guard of honour, played on the pitch at half-time, and met President of Ireland Michael D. Higgins. Result!

The Palestinian community in Ireland and the Palestinian diplomatic mission here, including Ambassador Ahmad Abdelrazek, were enthusiastic supporters throughout the visit.

Sport Against Racism Ireland (SARI) and Shamrock Rovers FC also helped create a great evening of beach football on Dublin’s Sandymount Strand. 

Existing organisations such as Nenagh Friends of Palestine, who hosted the children for half their visit, and the Ireland Palestine Solidarity Campaign in Limerick and elsewhere, were vital to the project.

More ad-hoc groups in Ballybrack, Kinvara, Wexford and Sandymount worked quickly and tirelessly to organise events. 

“There weren’t enough mealtimes to visit all the restaurants that offered to feed the children,” one of the organisers laughed.

Gaza Action Ireland said it hopes to continue working with Al Helal and with football in Gaza, including supporting the development of the game for girls in the territory. 

“We hope more visits, in both directions, will become possible.

“It’s been absolutely brilliant. 

“We couldn’t possibly name them all but we thank everyone who played, donated, fundraised, fed, and lavished the children with gifts, hospitality and love.”

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Arm-wrestling with Trevor Hogan, pro-Palestinian activist and former Irish rugby player

Bidding farewell to the group, Sinn Féin Dublin City Councillor Chris Andrews (who is barred from Israel after being arrested by Israeli commandos on an Irish Ship to Gaza mercy mission in 2011) said:

“Really gutted these amazing kids from Gaza are going home today. It’s not a great feeling sending them back to a life under occupation and uncertainty, not knowing if Israel will bomb them in their homes or when they are out playing football.”

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